How Does One Teach What One Does Not Know?
An Essay By Deanna Piercy

This seems to be a common concern for many who believe homeschooling should be regulated. "Homeschooling may be OK if the parents are well-educated, but what about parents who barely graduated from highschool?" "How can those parents possibly teach what they themselves do not know?" "Shouldn't we have certain restrictions on who is allowed to homeschool their kids?" At first thought, this seems to be a reasonable question. After all, we expect public school teachers to be trained in the areas in which they teach (nevermind the fact that, due to teacher shortages, many are teaching outside their area of expertise). How on earth can a parent who barely mastered basic arithmetic teach their child algebra or geometry?

One thing I have found to be vital when debating something is to make sure we are asking the right question. In this case, I think we need to rephrase the question. It really should be, "Can a child (or anyone else, for that matter) learn without a knowledgeable and skilled teacher to guide them every step of the way?" When looked at in this light I am certain we can all think of many things we learned on our own. For instance, I am writing this essay on our family computer. I have put the title in a different size font, in bold print and underlined. I can send and receive e-mail. I know how to "surf the web". Did I take a computer course? No. Once I decided to put aside my apprehension and give it a try, I learned how to do these things pretty much on my own. My kids have also shown me various things about computers. Which is exactly my point. How did the kids learn? I have no idea but I do know that they are very "computer literate". They understand far more about computers than I do and they utilize this knowledge on a daily basis.

Another example of independent learning (which, after all, should be the goal) is my daughter's desire to learn Italian. One night as I was getting ready to go to bed, I noticed Lisa's light on so I went to tell her goodnight. She was reading an Italian dictionary, of all things! (You may be wondering why we even have an Italian dictionary but that is another story. In short, I believe in having LOTS of resources of all kinds in the home, just in case one of the kids develops a sudden interest in something.) I asked why she was reading it and she said that she had decided to learn Italian. Now, I had purchased an expensive French curriculum which was sitting in a closet somewhere. I had taken several years of French in high school and college. It might be reasonable to expect that I could help my children learn French. But Italian?! Oh well, I figured it might be a passing fancy on her part and if not, perhaps I could locate an Italian curriculum for her. I didn't think of it again until the next afternoon when she told me that she had located and signed up for a free online Italian course. It never occurred to me to look for such a thing but it obviously did to her. Several months have passed and she has enjoyed the lessons. She e-mails her teacher when she has a question and always receives a prompt reply. The teacher also developed a book and cd set that offered more lessons than what she had on the internet. We purchased those and Lisa continues to learn Italian without my help. This has also inspired an interest in Italy so we have watched a video about it and I am always on the lookout for interesting books about Italy.

I could describe many other things my kids have learned on their own or under the guidance of someone other than myself. Piano, violin, tennis, soccer, swimming, horseback riding, oil painting, CPR/First Aid, Latin, computer skills, sign language, vast quantities of music trivia, sports info (very helpful in Trivial Pursuit!), chess, and other things too numerous to mention. If the only things my kids knew were what I had specifically set out to teach them, the previously mentioned things would not be a part of their lives.

There are many ways to learn. A skilled and knowledgeable teacher with a passion for his/her subject is an excellent means of learning certain things. Does this teacher have to possess a teaching certificate and impart knowledge to a classroom full of kids in order to be effective? No. My kids have learned some wonderful things from people who have never taken a teaching course. It is also possible to learn many things completely on one's own with little or no input from another person. The homeschool community has done a marvelous job of producing excellent curricular resources that enable students to learn everything from algebra to zoology virtually independently. And let us not forget the wealth of information available in our public libraries or online.

One of the problems we face in homeschooling is putting aside our preconceived notions of what constitutes learning and teaching. Virtually all homeschooling parents attended public or private school. We have been conditioned to think that learning is that which takes place from August/September to May/June, Monday through Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., while seated at a desk with 20 or more age-mates, with a certified teacher at the helm, skillfully orchestrating various learning activties. If we are unable to let go of that image, we are destined to recreate "school at home". Many homeschoolers do exactly that. The media loves to portray homeschooling families in such a way that the public envisions a family room with school desks lined up along the wall, neatly dressed children diligently filling in worksheets, Mom teaching lessons at the small blackboard hanging on the wall. Some homeschooling families do indeed fit this picture. For the most part they are doing a fine job educating their children. However, this is not the only accurate portrayal of homeschooling. Some of us have attempted to put aside these commonly held views of learning and are investigating how our children make sense of the world. We are trying to remember that our children learned how to walk and talk (two very complex tasks) without special "walking and talking classes". We are attempting to take notice of the learning that goes on all the time in a household of busy and curious kids. We are discovering that God has designed us to love learning. We are rediscovering that joy of learning ourselves and are sharing it with our kids. We are teaching our children HOW to learn, not just trying to fill their minds with facts. We are raising independent learners that know how to think outside the box.

In an increasingly complex world that is experiencing a mind-boggling explosion of new technology and knowledge in all fields, it is imperative that we make sure our children have the tools necessary for independent learning. I recently read that the half-life for medical knowledge, in other words, how long it takes before half of what is learned in medical school is outdated, is fifteen years. Now ask yourself this question: If your doctor has been out of medical school 16 or more years, what kind of learner do you want him to be? I sincerely hope he (or she) knows how to learn independently. It is no longer possible (if it ever was) to teach someone a prescribed set of information and skills and then say they are adequately educated. If we fail to teach them how to access information of all kinds, how to research a topic in depth, how to locate various resources, in short, how to learn, they will soon find themselves woefully lacking and unable to keep up with the changes they WILL encounter. If we do a good job teaching our children how to learn, they can and will find a way to learn everything they need or want to know, regardless of whether their parents are college graduates or highschool dropouts.


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